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Archive for Monday, January 22, 1996

A LEAN ERA FOR HOG FARMERS

January 22, 1996

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Douglas County's hog inventory has declined by two-thirds since 1991.

The squirming pink pig in Phillip Metsker's hands represented more than a juicy pork chop.

It symbolized a way of life -- one slowly slipping from the grasp of Douglas County's hog producers. In the past five years, the county's hog inventory declined from nearly 30,000 to less than 10,000.

"The margins are getting a lot tighter," said Metsker, who has spent many of his 42 years raising swine on a farm south of Lone Star. "Family farmers are not interested in raising pigs for such a small profit margin."

In five years, Metsker expects to still be sending 4,000 hogs to market annually. That won't likely be the case 10 years from now.

"A lot of people are getting out," he said. "It's like a roller coaster. You don't know whether to be scared off or get back on for another ride."

Garry Keeler, Douglas County Extension agent, said there were several factors contributing to the decline of hog production in the county.

He said the county's residential housing boom put a squeeze on livestock farmers. The closer to Lawrence, the bigger the problem.

"It's harder to raise livestock in an urban sprawl area," he said.

He said another problem for farmers was the county's high land value. It doesn't take a property appraiser to figure out that a farm surrounded by $200,000 homes will increase in value, he said.

Reluctance of a younger generation to get involved in a capital-intensive business like farming further cut the number of farmers in the county, said Rep. Tom Sloan, a Lawrence Republican who raises sheep.

"You find fewer and fewer farmers willing to mortgage their future for a relatively low rate of return," Sloan said.

In Metsker's mind, huge swine operations undercut smaller producers.

"It's a corporate thing," he said. "They're taking over."

According to Kansas Agricultural Statistics in Topeka, the share of the state's hogs held by producers with more than 1,000 head increased since 1991, while the share controlled by producers with 100 to 999 head declined. Farmers with one to 99 head increased in that period, KAS said.

Overall, 1,300 hog farmers have quit the business since 1991.

Seaboard Farms, a Johnson County company, is the biggest player in the state's corporate hog market. It has the potential to raise 1 million hogs annually.

Rick Hoffman, chief executive officer of Seaboard Farms, said U.S. hog producers -- corporate and family -- had to produce pork more efficiently.

"That's due to economic factors that are necessary, desirable for the United States to be a competitive producer of food," he said. "It's no different in pork than any other business."

Hoffman said corporate hog operations weren't responsible for demise of family farms. Small producers can compete with their massive brethren, he said.

"An efficient producer of hogs on a small scale can match the type of cost structure that we have," Hoffman said. "We're not overwhelming the industry."

Keeler said reasons that made hog farming a challenge in Douglas County also kept a hog operation like Seaboard from settling near Lawrence.

"If I'm a corporate farm, I'm not going to raise hogs around 70,000 people," he said. "I'm going to go to western Kansas where I have some space."

The same logic keeps anyone from building a packing plant to serve eastern Kansas.

Hoffman said low population density was a key factor in picking five southwest Kansas counties for Seaboard's production facilities and the Oklahoma panhandle town of Guymon for a new slaughtering house. Fewer people means fewer complaints about the smell of livestock.

"All our (Kansas production) facilities are one mile from the nearest house, which is unheard of anywhere else," he said.

Metsker said he didn't have that kind of room to operate. He complies with state health regulations when disposing of manure but still gets complaints from neighbors.

"Eventually -- this is an exaggeration -- we'll have cows walking around with diapers on," he said.

Rep. Joann Flower, R-Oskaloosa, said folks shouldn't be surprised by odors they encounter in rural America.

"If they don't like it, they should stay in the city."

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